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Hands-on with the new Bose SoundControl Hearing Aids

Bose's $850 FDA-cleared, direct-to-consumer hearing aids are now available in all 50 states. Are they a good deal?

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The BoseSound Control Hearing Aids are now available nationwide for $850. 

Bose

Back in May, Bose announced its new $850 FDA-cleared SoundControl Hearing Aids, which are available directly from the company and don't require a doctor's visit, hearing test or prescription. They had a limited initial release but are now available nationwide. And that's why Bose just sent me a sample to test out.

First, a disclaimer: Because my hearing is still relatively good I'm not the true target audience for this product. While it's intended for people with mild to moderate hearing loss, as we get older, all of us tend to have some hearing loss -- I can't, for instance, hear high frequencies as well as I once did. But I do have some previous experience testing hearing aids, including a pair of custom-fit $6,000 Phonak buds that I wore around CES a couple of years ago. And I recently tried a pair of Signia Active Pro hearing aids that are designed to look and fit more typical ear buds but are still pricey. 

These Bose SoundControl Hearing Aids are both similar and different from traditional hearing aids. If you've ever shopped for hearing aids, you probably know that they can cost a lot of money -- well over $2,000 and sometimes much more for premium models. My stepmother just picked up a pair at Costco for around $1,500. These don't look much different from the ones she bought, but the key here is that Bose says its new Bose Hear app for iOS and Android allow you to set up and customize SoundControl Hearing Aids from home in less than an hour with "audiologist-quality results." Cutting out the audiologist helps cut the price.

The Bose Hear app is simple to use.

Bose

Other companies like Zvox have created low-cost personal sound amplification products, or PSAPs -- its VoiceBud VB20 amplifiers cost about $300 for a pair -- but in order to call a product a "hearing aid," you need FDA clearance, which is a notch below FDA approval. As hearing aid regulation has evolved during the pandemic, plenty of new products have been falling into the PSAP gray zone. 

For instance, Vivtone says its $500 Pro20 model is FDA-cleared and "medical grade" but then refers to the product as both a "hearing aid" and "hearing amplifier" on its Amazon product page and its website. (A quick search of the FDA website did not turn up any search results for Vivtone Pro20 or Vivtone, but the Bose SoundControl Hearing Aids are there.) Previously, Bose dabbled in hearing amplification with its experimental $500 Hearphones, which were discontinued in 2020. 

For your typical behind-the-ear, receiver-in-canal designed hearing aids (these come with three sizes of open and closed dome eartips) the SoundControl Hearing Aids are lightweight and well designed. I liked their protective carrying case. Bose says each hearing aid weighs 3 grams and contains two microphones, one tiny speaker and a standard 312 zinc-air battery. A battery lasts up to four days when used for 14 hours a day and eight batteries are included in total. They're water-resistant "to survive light exposure to rain or water."

The included cable that runs from the hearing to the tip should be a fit for most ears but Bose will send you a different size one if it doesn't work and these come with a 90-day risk-free trial as well as dedicated support, including one-on-one video appointments with Bose Hear Product Experts to get personalized help and guidance. They are eligible for FSA and HSA reimbursement.

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The hearing aids in their included case.

Bose

After I put the batteries in, I had no trouble pairing the hearing aids to the Hear app on my iPhone via Bluetooth. The buds turn on when you push the battery door closed and turn off when you pop it open (when not in use, you store the hearing aids in their case with the door open to save the batteries). The instructions are clear and the process is straightforward. 

I've had hearing tests and worked with audiologists in the past to tweak the sound of the hearing aids I was testing. The audiologist will tune the hearing aids based on your hearing test and then she'll make some tweaks based on your feedback after you use them. Typically, hearing aids take some getting used to because you hear more sound (including your own voice) than you're used to and that can be a little jarring. With these Bose Hearing Aids, you put them on and start experimenting with the tuning in the app. You can start off on a lighter setting initially then dial more amplification in as you get used to the hearing aids. 

Bose says the CustomTune technology that's incorporated into the Bose Hear app offers hundreds of options for fine-tuning from just two simple controls: "World Volume can be turned up to amplify quiet sounds more than loud ones so listening is more comfortable, while Treble/Bass can adjust tone to accentuate or diminish certain vocal frequencies."

A Focus feature allows you to focus on sound that's directly in front of you (for restaurant conversations, for example) and presets for activities and places can be named and stored in Modes for easy retrieval. Directional audio features are pretty standard on medical-grade hearing aids, many of which now have companion apps for iOS and Android to customize your settings, although they still require an audiologist for initial tuning. 

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Like other behind-the-ear hearing aids, you can barely tell I have them on (only the clear tube is visible from the front). 

David Carnoy/CNET

In my few days using them, the Bose Hearing Aids worked as advertised. I didn't turn up the World Volume very high -- I stayed between 12-15; it goes up to 100 -- because you can hit a level where things just sound too amplified (read: unnatural) and if you cross a certain threshold you will experience some feedback (whistling) of the hearing aid. I didn't do much to amplify the bass or treble because even though my hearing tests say I have some small hearing loss in the higher frequencies, accentuating the treble even a few clicks gave everything a little too much of an edge. So I left it at 0 or even added a little more bass to smoothen the sound out a touch. 

One of the big use cases for hearing aids is TV watching. While I can watch TV at lower to moderate volume levels without a problem, we have a heating/air conditioning unit in our TV room that competes with the sound when it kicks on. My kids have no problem hearing everything when the unit kicks on but I always find myself raising the TV's volume a bit (I do have a 7.1 surround system, so I'm bypassing the TV's internal speakers). With the hearing aids on in TV mode, I didn't have to raise the volume; I just raised it in the Hear app a bit. 

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They're powered by standard hearing-aid batteries -- they aren't rechargeable. 

David Carnoy/CNET

I should note that a lot of hearing aids these days allow you to use them for taking calls on your cell phone and listening to music over Bluetooth. Also, many hearing aids have rechargeable batteries. The Bose Hearing Aids don't have any extra features -- Bose reps told me they wanted to concentrate on getting the hearing experience right. Also, it's very hard to do music well with hearing aids. Even those $6,000 Phonak hearing aids I used were mediocre for music listening. I can see why Bose would leave off music listening because people expect a lot from Bose when it comes to audio quality and it would certainly fall short with these hearing aids. However, including voice-calling capabilities would have been nice and I'd expect Bose's next hearing aids to have that feature. But it's not a deal breaker.

If you're comparing these to those $1,500 hearing aids my stepmother got at Costco, I'd say these are a good value at $850. As I said, they're lightweight, well designed and fit my ears comfortably. You can barely tell I'm wearing them. All that said, I'd like to see these get to $499. That's probably not going to happen any time soon, but that would seem to be a magic price point that would entice even more people to get hearing aids earlier. 

We are seeing a smattering of earbud-style "smart" hearing devices hit the market. Companies like Nuheara with its $499 IQbuds2 Max, Olive Union and others are marketing hearing-enhancement buds. Jabra just unveiled its Jabra Enhance Plus earbuds that are medical-grade hearing aids (and thus, have no fixed price). And Apple is rolling out a "Conversation Boost" feature for the AirPods Pro that will be available with iOS 15 next month. That upcoming software upgrade marks Apple's entry into the hearing-enhancement arena and it only seems a matter of time before we see even more Apple hearing-enhancement features that will likely become more advanced and adaptive.

But for now this is Bose's take on a traditional hearing aid -- and it's mostly quite good for a first-generation product. While the hardware may not be groundbreaking, the package as a whole -- and that includes its user-friendliness -- make it worth trying before spending more on an entry-level hearing aid that still may cost you $1,500.